19 May 2020

Body movement in water study provides help for police search teams and advisors

Sgt Lorna Dennison-Wilkins is a police search advisor at Sussex Police and is undertaking a PhD at the University of Dundee with funding from the College bursary scheme.  Here she tells us about her unique research into the movement of bodies in water.

How did your policing role help you to identify the focus of your research?

I'm a police search advisor and I ran the Specialist Search Unit in Sussex (which carried out police diving, marine and other disciplines) for eight years until it was closed in 2015.  Following deployments to look for missing people in water, I noticed patterns in the location where bodies were found which seemed to depend on a person's characteristics, for example, build and clothing, and the environment.  Although we already had data to assist us with a land-based missing person search, I realised that, at that time, we didn't have any research relating to missing people in water. I was fascinated by what I was seeing as a practitioner and really wanted to learn more so I set up the Body Recovery from Water Study in 2009.

It was very sad seeing families who did not know where the body of their loved one was, or what had happened to them. I knew that enhancing our knowledge and skills could help us give an earlier resolution for families of missing people. In addition, it could help save time and money invested in missing person search operations and could also minimise the risk to all of those involved in searching in hazardous environments.  

I did some research and found an amazing person who I wanted to supervise me and then I applied to do a Masters by Research (two years part time) at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee.  I was accepted and I got on really well with my research and I had lots that I wanted to fit in so I transferred to the PhD programme after about 18 months. This allowed me to hedge my bets rather than apply for a PhD in the first instance.

What benefit will your research bring to your own police force and the wider police service?

I have already passed on knowledge from my research and get called from time to time by colleagues (police and other agencies) to advise on the likely movement of a body in water. My advice has been used to provide evidence to underpin colleagues' search or investigative strategies for a wide range of cases. Most of the people that contact me are police search advisors who have outstanding missing people that they think are in water and want to talk over planning and prioritising their search strategy.

I am also in the process of developing an app, with assistance from the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science. The app will be a 'living tool' through which the results of my data analysis can be shared with police search advisors and other emergency services. It will be based on my prediction model which has been built using the data about where bodies have been found. The app will be updated periodically. Adding new data will improve the accuracy of the app over time. The data concerns the physical attributes of a person (for example, sex, age, ethnicity and build), the type and quantity of clothing and footwear they were wearing as well as external factors like the environment.

What has been your experience of studying while working?

I have learnt when I am at my most productive – usually in the evening. I try and get quality hours of work where I can. I have also found that I am really productive when I'm on the go.  Recently, I went skiing in France and managed to write 2000 words of my thesis in the back of a van on the French motorway (1000 heading south and 1000 on the way back!) and 600 more while in the Alps. I always manage to get work done in transit, so I use this to the best of my advantage.  

I find I have a flurry of productivity following a visit to University, so I try and go as often as possible although this isn't always easy because I chose a university 540 miles from home! I think the secret of being productive is knowing how you work best to optimise good quality hours (and not beat yourself up for procrastinating at other times). I have discovered that I love statistics and data (which is fabulous in a geeky sort of way). But when I get results from my analysis, usually late at night, I can't then get to sleep because my mind is too busy. I've had to be really disciplined and stop work at least an hour before bed which isn't easy when there is cool stuff happening in the data!!

If I am honest, it is difficult at times to fit everything in but I'm doing OK because I love my subject so much it doesn't feel like a chore as I get so much enjoyment from it. I have made sacrifices. I haven't cycled as much as I used to and I haven't read a non-academic book since 2016. I have however made an amazing list of book recommendations so when I've finished my PhD I'm going to work through my reading list!

What are your next steps?

I will be handing in my thesis in December this year and then intend to submit six papers from January to August 2021. I will also be doing some additional experimentation that I couldn't include in my PhD because of restrictions on word limits. I now see the PhD as a part of my research journey but much more will come afterwards. I am excited about the app. This is the way that I will be able to share the results of my analysis and provide an operational tool which will enable practitioners, and other interested parties, to input details of their particular cases. This will generate hypotheses, based on likely body movement, from the data analysis. This output can then be used to inform search strategies and prioritise search areas.

What three top tips would you give to someone thinking of doing further study/research on a topic?

1.     Choose an area of research that intrigues you, then learning about it will not feel like a chore. 

2.     Have faith in yourself and be kind to yourself. You will find it hard at times but you can do it if you want it enough. Don't give yourself a hard time if you procrastinate or aren't 'feeling it' sometimes, it happens and you can get back on track. I have found that being in the police and being a 'mature student' has really helped equip me for research. Maturity and past experience can be a great advantage.

3.     Choose your supervisor not your university. I researched who the respected academics were in my field and contacted them with my research idea. I then applied to their University. Consequently I am supervised by two really inspirational people who guide me as academics and also practitioners. This has made all the difference, and I have never looked back.


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Twitter: @bodywaterstudy
Facebook: The Body Recovery From Water Study Page/Group


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